The Smuggler, the Medical Centre, and the Trafficker: Al-Kassab and Al-Bija – Al Marsad

AL MARSAD SPECIAL REPORT: The UN-sanctioned Mohammed Kachlaf (“al-Kassab”), Commander of the Al-Nasr Martyrs Brigade which is affiliated with the Petroleum Installations Guard of the Government of National Accord (GNA), inaugurated his private hospital in the city of Zawiya. The ceremony was attended by a number of dignitaries and governmental officials, including the Mayor of Zawiya Municipality. Al Marsad investigates the background of Al-Kassab and his ties to the notorious human trafficker and Libyan Coast Guard commander, Abd al-Rahman Milad (“al-Bija”).

[Libya, 22 October 2019] – Pictures posted on the Zawiya Municipality official Facebook page, which were deleted later, show the 31 year old Mohammed Kachlaf, an alleged fuel smuggler who is internationally sanctioned and locally wanted at the orders of the Libyan Attorney General, with the Mayor of Zawiya Municipality, Jamal Bahr, and a member of the Municipal Council Mukhtar al-Mariol, during the inauguration ceremony of the Al-Naser Medical Centre which is apparently named after the Al-Nasr Martyrs Brigade that Kachlaf commands.

Mohammed Kachlaf (right) with the Mayor of Zawiya Municipality, Jamal Bahr.

Mohammed Kachlaf (left) with the Mayor of Zawiya Municipality, Jamal Bahr, opening Al Naser Medical Centre.

Al Naser Medical Centre

The published photos, which were later deleted by the Zawiya Municipality, document the participation of the adviser to the Tripoli-based Presidential Council, Fathy al-Hungary, and member of the parallel Libyan House of Representatives in Tripoli, Ali Abu Zareba, and other social community senior figures.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Mohammed Kachlaf: Sanctioned by the United Nations 

The name of Mohammed Kachlaf was mentioned in the UN Security Council’s Panel of Experts Report in March 2018 in items (90) and (92), followed by a travel ban sanctions and freezing of funds. Kachlaf resorted to investing his money locally due to the freeze of assets and travel ban sanctions. The opening of the medical centre is an indication that the sanctions imposed in Libya by the Attorney General are not being implemented.

According to the UN Security Council’s Panel of Experts Report, the Nasr Martyrs Brigade in Zawiya, Western Libya, headed by Mohammed Kachlaf, is accused of involvement in fuel smuggling from the Zawiya refinery. The Al-Nasr Brigade used 70 boats, either small tankers or fishing trawlers with modified tanks, to transport smuggled fuel to tanker ships off Libya’s western coast. The Al-Nasr Martyrs Brigade also utilized trucks to illicitly transport the fuel to Zuwara, west of Zawiya, near the Libyan border with the Republic of Tunisia.

The report specified that Kachlaf was the Commander of Al-Nasr Martyrs Brigade in Zawiya, western Libya. The Panel of Experts of the Security Council also confirmed that Kachlaf’s militiamen exert control over the Zawiya Refinery and that there is “further evidence of the collusion of elements of the Coast Guard in al-Zawiya and Mohammed Kachlaf.” Zawiya is a major hub for human trafficking and fuel smuggling.

According to the report, “al-Zawiya smuggling network is at the heart of the fuel trafficking activities. Several armed groups operate in the fuel smuggling business. Their activities largely contribute to the mounting violence and insecurity in western Libya and, thus, threaten peace and stability in Libya and neighbouring countries. Their actions also drive up fuel prices and deprive the local populations of access to fuel.” He was been accused by factions in the western region of fuel smuggling, causing shortages to sell the petrol and refined products at black market rates which drove the price of petrol to LYD 1 per liter.

Mohammed Kachlaf also controls notorious detention centres for migrants, including the Al-Nasr Detention Center, which is under the aegis of the GNA-affiliated Combating Illegal Immigration Department.

According to the Panel of Experts report, the Kachlaf network is at the forefront of major human trafficking and exploitation of migrants in Libya, and he has extensive links with his friend, the Commander of the Zawiya branch of the Libyan Coast Guard, Abd al-Rahman Milad, known as al-Bija. Al-Bija’s units intercepts boats carrying migrants to return them to detention facilities controlled by the Al-Nasr Brigade militiamen and hold them in perilous and deplorable conditions. According to the UN Panel of Experts report:

  1. Abuses against migrants were widely reported, including executions, torture and deprivation of food, water and access to sanitation. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) also reported enslavement of sub-Saharan migrants.[1] Smugglers, as well as the Department to Counter Illegal Migration and the coastguard, are directly involved in such grave human rights violations (see also para. 245).

  2. Abd al-Rahman Milad (alias Bija), and other coast guard members, are directly involved in the sinking of migrant boats using firearms. In Zawiya, Mohammed Kachlaf opened a rudimentary detention centre for migrants in the Zawiya refinery. The Panel collected information on abuses against migrants by several individuals (see annex 30). In addition, the Panel collected reports of poor conditions in migrant detention centres in Khums, Misrata and Tripoli (see para. 93 and annex 31).

Kachlaf and Al-Bija: Partners in Crime 

While he still has an armed group fighting in the Tripoli battles, Mohammed Kachlaf has a close relationship with his other colleague whom The Guardian described as “one of the most notorious human traffickers in the world” after the Italian newspaper Avvenire brought into the limelight a controversial meeting earlier on 11 May 2017 that al-Bija attended in Sicily with Italian intelligence officials to discuss imposing restrictions on the influx of migrants from Libya, noting that this human trafficker has attended in his capacity as a “commander in the Libyan Coast Guard”.

The newspaper reported that Abd al-Rahman Milad (al-Bija), and other members of the Coast Guard are directly involved in the sinking of migrant boats using weapons. Although a freezing of assets and a travel ban outside Libya were requested in the UN Security Council dossier, al-Bija is still the Commander of the Zawiya branch of the GNA Libyan Coast Guard. He obtained this sensitive position thanks to the support of his tribal cousins, Mohammed Kachlaf and Walid Kachlaf.

Mohammed Kachlaf (Al-Kassab) in his boat.

The newspaper said in a series of reports published early October this year, that al-Bija attended a meeting on 11 May 2017 held between Italian intelligence officials and a delegation of the Libyan Coast Guard in Cara di Mineo, in the province of Catania, Sicily. One of the Europe’s biggest camp for migrants and asylum seekers is located in Cara di Mineo.

Abd al-Rahman Milad, aka al-Bija, attending a meeting between Italian officials and the Libyan Coast Guard in May 2017.

A UN security report circulated two years ago, in June 2017, described al-Bija as “a bloodthirsty human trafficker responsible for shootings”, at the Mediterranean Sea and “suspected of drowning dozens of people.” He widely considered to be the ringleader of a criminal organization operating in the north western coastal city of Zawiya, 45 kilometers to the west of the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

Abd al-Rahman Milad, aka al-Bija, attending a meeting between Italian officials and the Libyan Coast Guard in May 2017.

The Guardian reported that “in February 2017, the then Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti signed a memorandum with the leader of Libya’s UN-recognized government, Fayez al-Sarraj, introducing a new level of cooperation between the Libyan coastguard and the Italians, including the provision of four patrol vessels.” The controversial deal, according to The Guardian, “has empowered the Libyan coastguard to intercept migrant dinghies at sea and bring them back to Libya, where aid agencies say the migrants and refugees suffer torture and abuse. The deal, which entailed Italy providing funds and equipment, was made by Minniti, a former communist with deep connections to Italian intelligence and the levers of the Italian state, in an attempt to stem the flow of migrants to its shores.”

The Italian Interior Minister, Luciana Lamorgese reinforced the same agreement at a meeting in Malta with her counterparts from France, Germany and Malta. The human trafficker al-Bija was introduced at the meeting in May 2017 as a “Commander of the Libyan Coast Guard” dispatched by the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) to represent the North African oil-rich country’s coast guard. A source in the Italian government told the newspaper that Rome did not know his identity.

Both the British and the Italian newspapers reported that the photos of al-Bija’s participation in the meeting were obtained from one of the attendees, and that the warlord and human trafficker arrived in Italy with a pass to attend the meeting which was also attended by North African delegates of international humanitarian agencies—no doubt unaware that they were sitting next to a warlord involved in the worst violations of human rights.

During a minibus tour in Sicily al-Bija was identified by a number of the migrants there on the day the meeting was held. According to the Italian newspaper, al-Bija requested from the Italian authorities to provide funds to facilitate managing the reception of the migrants on the Libyan territories.

Nello Scavo, the author of the article published by the Italian newspaper Avvenire, told the Guardian:

“there had always been suspicions about the agreement between the Libyan Coast Guard and the Italian Government. In the past, there had already been talk of the suspected involvement of traffickers in the Libyan coastguard. But now we have the evidence. It seems really strange that Italian intelligence was not aware of al-Bija’s identity. It is difficult to believe they were distracted.”

According to The Guardian, “detectives in Sicily have arrested three men who allegedly raped and tortured dozens of migrants in a detention centre in the north-west of Libya. Prosecutors in Agrigento have collected testimonies from numerous asylum seekers from North Africa who allegedly recognized their former captors at a migrant registration centre in Messina, Sicily.”

The three detainees, a 27-year-old Guinean man and two Egyptians aged 24 and 26, are accused of torture, kidnapping and human trafficking—all of them work at a Migrants’ Detention Centre in Zawiya, the headquarters and operational centre of al-Bija.

In some of the migrants’ testimonies, contained in documents The Guardian mentioned that it had seen, asylum-seekers talk of a man who called himself “Abd al-Rahman” who was responsible for transferring the migrants to the shores. Some of the victims reported that he was the person deciding who to embark on the rafts. “He was a violent man and was armed; we all feared him,” said one witness in the report.

In another related development, the Italian government issued on Friday a new decree facilitating repatriation of undocumented migrants from 13 countries. The plan, presented last Friday, accelerates the deportation process of undocumented migrants who have no right to stay in the country, cutting the time it takes to decide on whether an asylum seeker must return home to four months.

Al-Bija: Thief, Smuggler and Trafficker

Al Marsad’s editorial team inspected aerial photos published by the Italian publication Avvenire last June that showed one of the Libyan patrol boats, of what was described as the naval coast guard of Zawiya and which reported to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). The photos clearly showed men not wearing official uniforms stealing items on a dinghy from which 53 migrants of different citizenships were saved by Sea Watch.

One of Libya’s leading human traffickers, Abd al-Rahman al-Milad (or Al-Bija), and currently commander of the Libyan Coast Guards in Zawiya and a militia leader under the GNA.

In the Italian report by Avvenire reviewed and translated by Al Marsad, human trafficking is the latest scandal shaking the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and its Ministry of the Interior. The photos presented solid proof of the return of patrol boats run by the internationally and French sanctioned Abd al-Rahman Milad, or al-Bija, to his previous work in the GNA-affiliated Libyan Coast Guard in addition to his role as field commander fighting alongside the forces of the GNA against the Libyan National army (LNA) troops in the Tripoli battles. Al-Bija is accused of human rights abuses by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague.

Furthermore, Al-Bija and his militiamen are conducting their criminal activities under an official capacity with the movement of migrants and they seem in fact to take care of their own interests first ad foremost, belittling the massive financial support paid by Italy and the European Union to them via the Libyan authorities to combat illegal immigration.

Some of the aerial photographs published by Avvenire, show al-Bija’s militiamen trying to seize and steal an engine from a dinghy on the high seas and reuse it for the trafficking of migrants  instead of rescuing them.

Al-Baji and his militiamen serve Libyan Coast Guard members for the GNA and its Ministry of the Interior while moonlighting as human traffickers—instead of saving the migrants, they were more interested in trying to steal the Yamaha engine of the dinghy they intercepted. All of the men were wearing casual clothes in an attempt to hide their official capacity as the GNA’s Libyan Coast Guard.

The report revealed that al-Bija and his militiamen arrived on board of Talil 267 patrol boat, owned by the Libyan state, which al-Bija had boarded several times in the past. This boat carries an old Soviet machine gun that al-Bija used several times to shoot at NGO rescue ships. The newspaper said that an Italian aircraft patrolling the Mediterranean in coordination with Sea Watch was able to photograph the arrival of the patrol boat from Zawiya, led by al-Bija, and the subsequent course of the scandalous actions by him and his men.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office at the International Criminal Court (ICC) has lodged an indictment with the UN Security Council on Zawiya mismanagement of the migrants’ dossier. The western coastal city has turned into a fiefdom controlled by al-Bija and his militiamen. Al-Bija works and moves under official capacity with the complicity of the GNA. He continues to treat the migrants in a cruel, inhuman and degrading manner.

The UN Panel of Experts report refers to the conclusion that the stakeholders directly or indirectly involved in the Libyan conflict are aware of the real situation on the ground and how the international funds allocated for the migrants’ issues are actually abused in Libya. The accusations refer to violations in detention centres that are administered by the state authorities affiliated with the GNA such as the Department for Combating Illegal Migration. The UN Security file of accusations refers also to how smugglers and traffickers move the migrants across different stages of their journey. The investigations unveiled systematic abuses particularly in Misrata, Zawiya, Tripoli and Bani Walid.

According to concluded MOUs signed between Tripoli, Rome and Brussels, it is anticipated that by 2023 about EUR 285 million will be transferred to the so-called Libyan Coast Guard as per a programme launched in March 2017. The President of the Tripoli-seated Presidential Council, Fayez al-Sarraj has previously presented a list of requirements to the Italian government. Al-Sarraj requested 10 ships for the search of migrants, 10 patrol boats, 4 helicopters, 24 rubber boats, 10 ambulances, 30 jeeps, 15 cars, 30 satellite phones, diving suits, daytime binoculars and night visors, tanks for oxygen and other equipment for a value not less than EUR 800 million.

Photo of the meeting of GNA’s Fayez al-Sarraj with the Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni Silveri (Archive)

The report confirmed that the delivery of the requested items has already started without any tangible improvements as far as migrant human rights are concerned. In fact, Tripoli has become the safest haven for traffickers in the world. Pirates like al-Bija were fortunate enough to receive double income—they get paid twice, from the migrants to help them escape, and from Europe to prevent the very same blackmailed migrants from arriving at its shores.

According to the report, al-Bija owes much to Europe in terms of being employed in Zawiya as its self-styled Libyan Coast Guard in-charge thanks to European funds that are sent to the Tripoli-based GNA that receives the large funds from the generous “donors” in Rome and Brussels. According to the report, “as sanctioned by the United Nations, al-Bija must be in jail now facing charges of committing crimes against migrants. Instead, he is still at large, enjoying his lucrative multifaceted activities; human-trafficking, securing an oil refinery, and working as a Coast Guard.”

A human trafficker fighting with the GNA forces

The UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) claims that al-Bija is a harmless individual. Fayez al-Sarraj, however, will be held responsible for people like al-Bija—now more than ever, since al-Bija has put his militia at the disposal of the Prime Minister of the GNA in his fight against Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army (LNA). Some MPs told the Italian newspaper that their country’s hosting of such men is “a disgrace“.

The report pointed to the images of al-Bija fighting in Tripoli and celebrating the victories in the battlefield with the other militiamen. It is therefore difficult for someone in the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) to extradite al-Bija to the International Criminal Court (ICC) considering that he provides services for the same government supported by the United Nations itself.

May 2019: The human trafficker Al-Bija (red), the Tripoli fighting axis leader Firas al-Selougi, a.k.a. Al Wahshi (black)

The report mentions that al-Bija, who is recognizable by his crippled right hand which was injured by a grenade explosion, slows down migrant flow through his illicit work on a regular basis to satisfy European governments, even if it means that he has to sink a few dinghies with migrants along the way.

May 2019: Al-Bija on board of the Talil 267 Libyan Coast Guard Patrol vessel on the day when they stole items from the migrants’ dinghy.

Since July 2018, al-Bija has been subject to sanctions by the United Nations Security Council, particularly a travel ban, asset freeze, and a block on all activities due to crimes being investigated by the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague. The paper says that these charges against this person should embarrass those who provide him with funds.

UN Security Council report sanctioning Abd al-Rahman Milad (or Al-Bija)

Al-Bija Sanctions Document Issued By the Security Council

One document from the Prosecutor’s Office at the International Criminal Court (ICC) stated that al-Bija and his militia were the recipients of one of the ships that Italy supplied to the Libyan Coast Guard, while some of his militiamen have benefited from an EU-training programme as part of Operation Sophia. Yet al-Bija is suspected of issuing orders to his men to fire on humanitarian rescue vessels and fishing vessels.

In an interview with the correspondent of Telegiornale 1 (Tg1), al-Bija made it clear that in exchange for a generous contract to manage the security of the oil sites granted by Italian companies, he would refrain from conducting other “business”. According to UN experts, there were cases of sinking migrant boats using firearms. Al-Bija also cooperated with migrant traffickers such as Mohammed Kachlaf who, according to sources, provides him with protection to continue to carry out illicit operations.

Al-Kassab (left) and Al-Bija (right).

The newspaper referred also to migrants’ testimonies cited in the reports of the United Nations and ICC including a reference to al-Bija and his gunmen who boarded some migrants on Talil, a Libyan Coast Guard vessel, and transferred them to the Al-Nasr Detention Centre in al-Zawiya, where they were reportedly held in deplorable conditions and brutally tortured.

Despite his deplorable résumé unfit for any official post, al-Bija and his men continue to gain privilege, access, and power without the slightest taint of embarrassment for his financiers, while the United Nations has returned to denounce the appalling, horrific and inhumane conditions of detention centres of migrants and refugees.

Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights spoke of a massacre against migrants, “with dozens of deaths due to tuberculosis at Libyan detention centers because of systematic malnutrition, the same facilities for which Libya receives hundreds of millions of Euros from Europe and especially from Italy.”

Al-Bija threatens the Italian Journalists

This week there was further escalation from Al-Bija. Italian police revealed that they were taking measures to protect Nello Scavo and Nancy Porsia, the two Italian journalists who broke the story in Avvenire about Al-Bija’s presence at the meeting in Sicily in May 2017. Both had received threats from Al-Bija since the publication of the story.

Al-Bija has threatened to sue both journalists over their accusations that he was a human trafficker. Nancy Porsia claimed she received a threat letter from al-Bija that included details about her life.

The Italian union of journalists and other organizations have expressed solidarity with the two journalists and called on media outlets to pursue further the investigations started by Scavo and Porsia into the participation of Bija in Libyan illegal immigration officials’ meetings with Italian authorities.

Whilst Kachlaf continues being fetted by GNA-aligned public figures, Al-Bija continues to benefit from EU largesse under the cover of the GNA, and retains a stranglehold on the lucrative human trafficking business along the Zawiya coast. Both individuals are sanctioned by the UN yet the GNA continues to do business with criminals with impunity.

© Al Marsad English Special Report (2019)

 

REFERENCES

[1] International Organization for Migration, “IOM learns of ‘slave market’ conditions endangering migrants in North Africa”, 11 April 2017. Available from: www.iom.int/news/iom-learns-slave-market-conditions-endangering-migrants-north-africa.

 

FURTHER RESOURCES

The GNA Human Trafficker: The Al-Bija Scandal